The left bank of Paris in 1819, a district crowded with students from the nearby Sorbonne, the schools of law and medicine, full of lower middle-class boardinghouses catering to students, petty clerks, and retired people with modest means — such is the Pension Vauquer located at "Rue Neuve Sainte Geneviève between the Latin Quarter and Faubourg Saint Marceau."
Exuding a pestilential odor, the pension is a very depressing place with an ugly outside and a decaying inside. It is ruled by Mme. Vauquer, a plump middle-aged widow who is stingy, hypocritical, and selfish.
The other occupants are lodged according to their means. Mme. Couture, the widow of an army paymaster, occupies the most expensive set of rooms on the first floor. With her is her ward, Victorine Taillefer, who has lost her mother and has been disowned by her father, a wealthy banker who decided to leave his fortune to his son. Victorine is a pale, resigned, sympathetic young person who, unfortunately, "lacks the two things that create women a second time: pretty dresses and love letters."
On the second floor lives an old man named Poiret, "a sort of automaton," a shabbily dressed nonentity who thinks himself witty. On the same floor are the quarters of Vautrin, a man about forty with a black wig and dyed whiskers, a strong and boisterous character who is a keen analyst of people and of society, mysterious in his ways and somewhat sinister.
The third floor is shared by three lodgers. Mlle. Michonneau is a shriveled, elderly spinster who had been an old man's companion and succeeded in having herself put in his will. A man named Goriot, who was once a rich merchant, is now a poor, wretched man, scorned by most of the tenants, who call him "Old Goriot." The other third-floor tenant is another sympathetic character, Eugène de Rastignac, of an aristocratic but poor family from the provinces; he is an ambitious student who has just come to study in Paris.
The attic houses Christophe, the handyman, and Sylvie, the cook.
This section, the first part of a long exposition, opens up as a drama would, giving us the setting and the cast of characters. It is a very good example of the author's realistic treatment of the novel, done in a classic manner. We see the place in which the drama is to take place first from the outside, then from the inside. Finally, we get a first glimpse at the protagonists.
All this is done in a typical Balzacian way with an accumulation of minute detail that lets us feel the atmosphere of decay and dilapidation of the boardinghouse. Stylistically, this is conveyed to us by a succession of adjectives, a device dear to Balzac: The furniture was "old, rotten, shaky, cranky, worm-eaten, halt, maimed, one-eyed, rickety, and ramshackle."
The characters are realistically examined. We are first given a glimpse of them in the way one would see them at a first meeting, and then, gradually, we penetrate bit by bit into their personality, as would happen in real life. And their physical traits and reactions to environment give us an insight into their moral behavior: For example, after describing the pestilential odor of the boardinghouse, Balzac adds that its owner "alone can breathe that tainted air without being disheartened by it."
However, there still remain many dark traits in the characters of the lodgers; many suspenseful questions remain unanswered. What deep-rooted passion obsesses Mlle. Michonneau, "vice, greed, or excessive love?" What was the exact nature of her occupation; was she a mere companion to the old man in her care or his lover? Could she possibly have driven her patient to his death to inherit his fortune?
Vautrin's character is described in a suspenseful, masterly way. We feel a dichotomy in his personality. Although a jovial person, fond of jokes and pleasant in his manners, he is a somewhat mysterious if not sinister character who can take a lock apart and replace it in seconds. He knows the sea, foreign countries, and prisons. (Vautrin, we will discover, is an escaped convict familiar with penal ships.) He disappears every evening, does not return until midnight, and seems to bear a grudge against society.
An interesting aspect of this section, which is opposed to the realistic treatment of the subject matter, is the author's constant personal comments and his tendency to philosophize. One example of this is Balzac's endeavor to rationalize the tenants' scornful attitude toward Goriot: "Perhaps," the author says, "it is only human nature to inflict suffering on anything that will endure suffering, whether by reason of its genuine humility, or indifference, or sheer helplessness."
Also interesting is the first hint of social criticism, which fills the whole book and is probably the unifying element of this complex work. Balzac shows us here a society in miniature patterned after the Parisian one; indeed, as in Paris, we see the guests at the boardinghouse lodged and treated according to their financial means and their social position (here the rooms each one occupies) fluctuating as their fortunes fluctuate, as shall be seen in the next section.